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Benefits of Cabinets Versus Open Shelving

In the kitchen, functionality is key. Preparing a meal can have you running around with lots of tools, ingredients, and dishes, so your work area needs to support you with adequate space and organizational abilities. The same is true in other rooms that need storage solutions, including bathrooms and offices. If you’re in your bathroom getting ready for work (or a big outing), or in your home office trying to pay bills or do paperwork, your space has to support your needs just like the kitchen should. This includes stashing things away on shelves and in cabinets… but when designing these rooms, how do you know which to use? Should you install cabinets or open shelving?

There’s a time and a place for both, and it depends on your specific needs and a few other factors to take into consideration.

The Ongoing Discussion on Kitchen Storage

In kitchens, the debate surrounding cabinets versus shelving ultimately comes down to visual appeal and practicality, leaning more on the latter.

As for bathrooms and offices, there’s less of a debate there — you’re much less likely to find an interior designer that tries to convince you that cabinets are too old-fashioned in those rooms. People are also a lot more likely to have opinions on how they think someone else’s kitchen should look, and try to steer you toward different solutions whether you like them or not, but those busybody instincts aren’t usually as strong when the room in question is a bathroom or office. The kitchen is more of a “showcase” room most of the time.

The basic rule is the same for all rooms, however: practicality followed by visuals. There are some times you might prefer a shelf instead of a cabinet in any of these rooms, and all the criteria for “which is best” are exactly the same.

Cabinets present a closed-off appearance that appeals to those seeking an organized and tidy space, where you can hide clutter behind beautiful hardwood. On the other hand, open shelving introduces a modern touch, fostering an airy and spacious ambiance. But before getting swayed by aesthetics it's essential to consider your functional requirements.

The Advantages of Cabinets Compared to Shelves

Cabinets offer a range of advantages over shelves, which is why they’ve remained in use for so many centuries — regardless of how many designers try to promote shelving as the new ideal, it’s extremely rare for it to completely replace cabinets.

Cabinets Protect What’s Inside Them

A cabinet is like a tiny room, with walls, a floor and ceiling, and a door. They fully enclose your kitchenware (or other contents) and protect them from all angles, and it only takes a brief moment of thought to consider all the things they might need to be protected from. Do you have children? Do you live somewhere that can experience earthquake tremors or other vibrations? Do champagne corks tend to pop off in the worst possible direction when you open a bottle? Anything that can cause objects to be knocked over, hit with something, or shake until they move out of place, is a potential disaster for anything on an open shelf. Even light can be a problem, as many things can be damaged by too much sunlight and need to be kept in a dark place when not in use.

Cabinets Keep Things Cleaner

Protection from damage is crucial, but we also need to remember protection from dirt. No matter where you live or whether or not you have children, a kitchen produces numerous environmental hazards just from being used normally. Smoke, steam, and moisture move through the air and they can carry grease with them. This is also why you need a good range hood over your stove, to pull this contaminated air upward and out of the room, but even the best one is not going to catch everything. Items left out on shelves or counters will slowly accumulate a layer of grease, which won’t be noticeable at first, but will quickly begin to attract dust! Wiping down a row of cabinets is infinitely faster and easier than wiping off several dozen shelf items on a daily basis.

Cabinets Make Organization Easier

A well-thought-out cabinet layout gives you a place for everything (and if you need help with that, read up on How to Keep Your Kitchen Organized), and while you could accomplish something similar with shelves alone, cabinets also make the room look neat and tidy. When you have lots of items sitting around, even if they’re all practical and see use every day, it just automatically looks like clutter. You shouldn’t have to consider the exact way you’ve laid out your kitchenware so it’s arranged attractively while it’s put away. You are already busy enough. Just put it behind a beautiful cabinet door!

What’s to Love About Open Shelving?

Shelves may be less practical in some ways, but there are times when they may be the better option for your room.

Shelving Can Feel More Open

Shelves are not fully enclosed like cabinets — at most, they’ll have built-in ends on the left and right like bookends, but more commonly a shelf is literally just a finished board. Since you can see every object on a shelf, and see the wall behind it, shelves can make a room feel more spacious, airy, and open. They also often enhance the feeling of natural light since they provide more open space for the light to flow through, and can also be more interesting to the eyes just by having more to look at.

Shelves are a Showcase

Since shelves are open, you need to consider that everything on them is going to be in view at all times, and while this can be annoying for messes of tools and other things that seem like clutter, it’s great if you actually have things you want to show off. Beautiful handmade pottery, vases of flowers, a collection of glass bottles, vintage ceramics labeled for all your spices, and other things that are meant to be looked at and appreciated go well on shelves (as long as you keep their safety and cleanliness in mind too if they are things you actually use and not just decoration). Even the shelves themselves offer some interesting decorative opportunities, since you’ll need to select brackets to attach them to the wall and could opt for certain types of molding or another shelf edge treatment to give their forward edges some style.

Shelves Can Be More Accessible

With no doors to open, shelves allow you to reach out and grab things more quickly (and can also be useful if you commonly forget which cabinet a certain item is in). In some tight corners a door might get in the way and hinder more than it helps, so shelves can also allow you to reclaim some space where a cabinet wouldn’t work as well. Just keep in mind that these types of tight corners are probably also a haven for dust, so make sure to regularly clean those areas.

Cabinets Versus Open Shelving: Why Not Both?

While cabinets have their advantages over shelves, you don’t need to forego shelves entirely (and the odds are you won’t want to). If you want the most versatile, accessible kitchen, a combination of shelves and cabinets might help you reach that ideal. The same goes for other rooms, where certain things are just going to be better suited to a cabinet (tucked away for privacy and cleanliness) or a shelf (in the open for convenience or decoration). For example, in a bathroom, you’re probably going to want a traditional medicine cabinet to keep pills and other personal things out of sight, and in an office you’re likely going to want cabinets with drawers.

Basically, shelves can be useful in all rooms, but sometimes you will specifically want a cabinet. Mixing them together will provide all the storage solutions you need. You can even find open shelf units to match your base cabinets and wall cabinets, so you could have a row of cabinets with a set of shelves at the end while keeping a consistent look between them!

The Secret to Getting the Best of Both Worlds

There’s one more option I want to mention as being the key to getting the benefits of cabinets and some of the benefits of an open shelf: glass-door cabinets. They protect items from dust and grease without completely hiding them, which you could definitely consider to be the best of both worlds in one unit. However, you probably won’t want to use a glass-door cabinet in every instance because you will still want to hide some things, and possibly still want to keep some other items out in the open on shelves. But in the places you do choose to use them, glass-door cabinets can look quite beautiful, with a glimpse of colorful dishes or other kitchenware inside. You can choose smooth glass or textured or frosted glass to change up the visuals (or to obscure things partially without fully hiding them).

Remember, though, that glass-door cabinets aren’t quite as strong as solid-door cabinets because a glass panel is always going to be more fragile than a piece of hardwood, even if it’s top-quality glass. You may also find the glass a little more annoying to clean than a simple solid door. But textured glass won’t get smudged as easily, and if your cabinets aren’t frequently getting hit by wild champagne corks or rowdy children you probably have nothing to worry about. Ultimately, you have to be the best judge of what is suitable for your kitchen.

Ready to Choose Cabinets and Shelves?

I hope this article has helped you decide when and where to use cabinets as opposed to open shelving and whether glass-door cabinets will work for you! At Online Cabinets Direct, you can find shelves, an enormous variety of cabinets, cabinets ready to accept glass doors, and even the glass itself. I’ve already linked to a few parts of our product catalog throughout this article, but the easiest way to find more is to browse our selection or use the search bar up top. If you need some help, check out our Design Guide or contact us directly.

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